Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Some Novels Worth Reading from 2012, Part One

Why do you read?  What gives you pleasure or moves you?  I gave these questions some thought this year (but not too much since I wanted to be reading).  Right in the middle of Pale King the (an)answer came to me, clear as a New Mexico morning: I need a voice in my head that isn't my own--reading is just about the best way I know of (writing too) to shuck off the imperious self, that heavy bear.  These books did that for me.....

Enriquie Vila-Matas, Dublinesque (New Directions, 2012): mostly a monologue about the end of the era of print; a lament for the lost world of literary fiction; a homage to Joyce and many other great writers.  The inspiration for me to finally get working on this blog, which I had wanted to do for three years.  In case you, dear reader, don't know the Philip Larkin poem that is the basis for Vila-Matas's title and much of his imagery, here it is--


Down stucco sidestreets,
Where light is pewter
And afternoon mist
Brings lights on in shops
Above race-guides and rosaries,
A funeral passes.

The hearse is ahead,
But after there follows
A troop of streetwalkers
In wide flowered hats,
Leg-of-mutton sleeves,
And ankle-length dresses.

There is an air of great friendliness,
As if they were honouring
One they were fond of;
Some caper a few steps,
Skirts held skilfully
(Someone claps time),

And of great sadness also.
As they wend away
A voice is heard singing
Of Kitty, or Katy,
As if the name meant once
All love, all beauty.

Tom McCarthy, Remainder (Vintage), just finished this and wrote about it yesterday.  Extraordinary.

Tomas Eloy Martinez, Purgatory (Bloomsbury, 2010), Simon, who is a cartographer, is apparently kidnapped, tortured, and murdered during the dark years of military rule in Argentina; thirty years later he reappears to his wife, Emila--speaks to her, makes love to her, accompanies her through her lonely days of exile--he is a ghost, in a kind of purgatory, the half-way house of forgetfulness in which the dead, the murdered, are forced to reside.  I don't like ghost stories, but this isn't one. Martinez also wrote Santa Evita, and The Peron Novel, both of which I also read and enjoyed, but Purgatory was for me the best of the three.  I'm sorry to say that Martinez died in 2005.  He was a great writer, full of passion for politics and critical of the human costs of the exercise of political power.

Charles Portis, Norwood (Vintage), I hadn't read Portis in years, since True Grit. One nice thing about Hollywood's deciding to make movies out of old, good books is that you can usually count on a reprinting of some long out-of-print stuff by the same author.  Norwood Pratt obtains a release from the Army to care for his sister Vernell.  Grady Fring "The Kredit King" persuades Norwood to drive a couple of cars to New York City.  Many adventures ensure, involving, most notably, Edmund Ratner---the world's smallest fat man--and Rita Lee Chipman, the love, as it turns out, of Norwood's life.  Portis is dead-on funny, but there's a good deal of serious social commentary in the book as well--as with all of of Portis, the world is divided into the decent/downtrodden and the phonies who play dirty.  Reading Portis I think: this is what a novel by Diane Arbus would be like, without the mockery; Portis never makes fun of his characters, and you finish the book pleased that things have worked out for Norwood and Rita. 

Saul Bellow, Ravelstein (Viking).  Not sure why I missed this book years ago when it first came out.  I read all of Bellow, one by one, as his novels appeared, and would put Herzog on any list of my all- time favorites.  This is a lesser work in nearly every way, but it still has the wise-guy, Chicago intellectual narrator that Bellow used beginning with The Adventures of Augie March.  Interesting here is that Ravelstein is a roman a clef--the eponymous focus of the novel is Allan Bloom, doyen of the  neo-cons, modern day Platonist (think of the "Symposium"), bearer of the 'moral compass' that was all the rage back in the 80's when Reagan and his cronies were lying to us--you know the crowd, the Commentary boys who were either in the Party or fellow-travellers until they saw there was more money to be made joining up Ronnie and the Moral Majority.  Bellow, in his Zionist-lite phase (To Jerusalem and Back,  1979) ran with this crowd, but was never one of them.  Anyway, reading Ravelstein early in the summer reminded me of those bad old days, but also of the great pleasure I had reading Humbolt's Gift during another summer, thirty years ago. 

David Foster Wallace, Pale King (Little Brown, 2011).  I read this novel twice in '12.  The sheer pleasure of Wallace's riffs, his mastery of language, his exuberance and pile-it-on style; yes, the book is unfinished, but it still hangs together thanks to some great editing, and if one approaches it as a group of thematically-connected short stories it works as a fully satisfying reading experience created by one of the most brilliant minds I've run into.  I also read, without comprehension, Wallace's Amherst thesis on the problem of free will (can't find the book and can't say anything intelligent about it) and D.T. Max's Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, which was just okay--a nice journalistic first draft of a life of DFW, but way too thin in its treatment of Wallace's writing.  I look forward to the next biography but am grateful to Max for the insights he has provided into Wallace's life.

Thomas Glavinic, Carl Haffner's Love of the Draw (The Harvill Press, 1999).  Found Glavinic by accident, browsing our local, good bookstore (Alamosa Books).  The best novel about chess since Stefan Zweig's The Royal Game.  A fictionalized account of the life of the retiring and eccentric Austrian Grandmaster Karl Schlechter.  A wonderful study of a highly focused intellect and of the pressures of chess as played on the highest level.  What does it mean to go through life playing for the draw? 

Thomas Pletzinger, Funeral for a Dog (Norton, 2008).  Another German writer I didn't know of until this year.  This is a novel about how one man (Daniel Mandelkern) excavates the secrets of the life of another man (Dirk Svensson).  Yet, of course, in pursuing the 'truth' about someone else, we are far more likely to uncover truths--often unhappy truths--about ourselves.  In the end, it is Mandelkern's life--especially his failing marriage--that is brought into focus.  A formally fractured and well-written (and well-translated) novel.

Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding (Little, Brown 2011), a baseball book that is actually about love in all of its forms.  I bought this at the airport, not expecting to be as engrossed as I was--I was sitting on the plane thinking--these poor people staring at a movie or playing solitare on their laptops when they could be reading this delightful book....I took to handing out copies to my family, friends, and enemies (trying to convert them).  Harbach was somebody I knew of from the great website n+1....which, if you don't know it, you should....here it is....with links to some of Harbach's writing.

George Ovitt

(More to come)


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